By LIAM DANN primary industries editor

It's hard to imagine New Zealand farmers feeding their cattle beer, giving them back massages or rubbing them down with rice wine.

That kind of decadent treatment, all aimed at tenderising the meat, has given Japan's Wagyu cattle breed its own special mystique.

The outrageous prices it fetches - occasionally up to $900 a kilogram - also add to the legend.

A small but passionate group of farmers is now determined to see the breed developed in New Zealand.

Northland breeder Ken Lopes believes adding Wagyu genetics to the nation's herd would give us a premium product to market to the US, Europe and Asia.

Wagyu beef is widely regarded as the most tender in the world.

In May, a Wagyu-Angus cross won the "Steak of Origin" search for New Zealand's most tender cut.

The breed originated in 19th century Kobe, a province of Japan, where it was bred to boost the strength of soldiers.

Though now farmed around the world, meat carrying the Kobe Beef label still fetches the highest price.

At top Japanese markets it has been known to sell for as much as $900 a kilogram.

More regularly, top-quality Wagyu beef still fetches about $120 a kg.

In culinary terms its texture is compared to the buttery french pate de foie gras.

It is described by such beef-worshipping organisations as the California BBQ Association as "smooth, velvety and incomparably sweet".

In most of the world the quality of beef is measured by the amount of fat in a ribeye muscle.

High-quality beef has 6-8 per cent fat. In contrast, Kobe beef can be up to 25 per cent marbled fat.

Despite the high fat content, Wagyu is considered a healthy meat because it is higher in mono-unsaturated fatty acids and lower in saturated fat than ordinary beef.

The introduction of Wagyu genetics into New Zealand herds was the logical way to lift the quality of New Zealand beef, Lopes said.

He argues that too much New Zealand beef is being labelled "manufacturing" rather than "prime" and we are missing out on a great export opportunity.

If Wagyu genetics were cross-bred into New Zealand herds we would have a premium export product that could be marketed the way our lamb has been in Europe, he said.

"Once consumers have tasted Wagyu beef they are willing to pay a premium for it."

In the US, food safety issues have created a more selective meat-buying public.

Wagyu genetics had been used in the US to increase the quantity of top-grade meat coming from all other breeds, Lopes said.

There are two common breeds of Wagyu: the traditional black variety, normally grain-fed and a red variety which usually feeds on grass.

Australian breeders had already achieved great results, getting high-quality meat from grass-fed red Wagyu, Lopes said.

New Zealand breeders needed to wake up to the potential or risk being left behind, he said.

There are somewhere between 20 and 30 Wagyu breeders in New Zealand and most of the product goes into the domestic market.

A few, like Hawkes Bay farmers David and Jonathan Brownrigg, have built a commercially successful operation breeding and farming Wagyu for export.

Brownrigg Agriculture has a partnership with Japanese company Kato Farming.

Strict laws require that only animals that have spent some time feeding in the province can be labelled Kobe beef.

So Brownrigg Agriculture's Wagyu cattle are reared for most of their lives in New Zealand, then shipped to Japan for finishing off.

But tough economic conditions in Japan have depressed the beef market in recent times and the potential for others to follow the Brownrigg model is limited.

The most likely way forward for Wagyu in New Zealand remains in cross-breeding.

"New Zealand has to get into this high quality of meat to get better profit margins for both processors and producers," Lopes said.